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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Strange Days Indeed

Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Strange days indeed...
-John Lennon

I'm beginning to regret my decision to re-read Stephen King's The Stand. I started reading it when I first learned about the Coronavirus outbreak in China and it's more than a little creepy that its progression is following the storyline of the book so closely.

No, this virus is not killing 99.4% of the population, but the societal parallels are absolutely haunting. It starts in a small region and quickly skips across the country, carried by highway patrolmen, traveling salesmen, and vacationing families. In the book it's spread worldwide by airline passengers and some nefarious doings by the CIA, but who needs them nowadays, with the relatively cheap travel offered around the world? Cruise ships anyone?

At first, people are sympathetic and helpful. Gradually, they start getting paranoid and defensive, blocking off towns from outsiders to try to stem the spread. Hoarding and looting ensues and fights break out over loaves of bread. Stephen King didn't mention anything about toilet paper, but I guess even he couldn't have imagined that little tidbit.

I'm still working and I can't figure out if that makes me lucky or not. On the one hand, I'm still getting a paycheck and I'm not stuck at home all day with only food and TV to keep me occupied. On the other, I'm being exposed to 50 people each day who go home and are exposed to their families and possibly tracking things in to work with them every morning. We have some really good safety measures in place—they take our temperature before we enter the building, someone sanitizes all shared surfaces three times a day and we are all keeping the required 6' away from one another and washing the skin off our hands—but there's always that creepy feeling in the back of my mind. We're all hypersensitive to any sign of illness. A sip of tea went down the wrong pipe the other morning and I held the cough in all day long not wanting to get that look from my co-workers. I was so relieved to get in the car that afternoon, my own cootie cocoon where coughing is allowed.

My company makes parts that are used in medical testing devices, the optical filters we make are used to detect viruses. We are literally working on the Coronavirus problem, so we are considered an "Essential Business". I even have a letter in my glove box to prove it, in case they start cracking down on people moving around when they should be home social distancing. I would love to say I designed these life-saving parts myself but lo, I am but a lowly customer service person. I think I'm going to keep that letter even after this is over, just to make myself feel more important.

Mark is working from home for the foreseeable future. There's only so many production meetings one can have when there's no production going on, but managers find a way to keep busy. There's going to be some heavy-duty planning when it's announced that things will open up again. When he's not checking emails and holding virtual meetings, the house has arranged to keep him busy. So far, the washing machine has popped a hose, the kitchen sink sprung a leak, and our home computer died. He's a handy guy, so he fixed the first two and arranged for repair of the last. And he was so looking forward to TV and snacks...

It's highly ironic that our typical vacations would be much safer than staying home, but we are barred from leaving. Camping out in the middle of the desert is pretty much guaranteed virus free. Our camper has come in handy though, even here at home. We store extra food, water and even the ever more valuable toilet paper and sanitizing wipes in there. All that teasing about the zombie apocalypse vehicle was worth it in the end, eh?

I've learned a lot from this experience, but I'm not sure what to do with this knowledge.

Hand sanitizer tastes terrible: the first time you pick up a snack without letting the hand sanitizer completely dry will be your last.

My almost 80 year old mother has a better grasp of emojis than I do: she texted me a Coronavirus symbol before I even knew such a thing existed.

There are two types of people in this world: Those that can joke about the new reality, and those that slip into panic mode immediately and consequently really REALLY don't enjoy the other type of people. You might be able to guess what category I fall into. Sorry Jeremy.

I hope you are all safely holed up somewhere, or doing the best you can to limit your exposure. In this day and age of internet connectivity, there are ways to stay in touch without touching so we're all lucky that way. I'm hoping this thing will be contained as soon as possible, and things can get back to somewhat normal for everyones sake.

In the meantime, I'll be cruising back and forth to work in my cootie cocoon, coughing when I feel like it and waving my Very Important Person Letter for everyone to see. Not to worry though, my tongue has been thoroughly sanitized.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Iceland Part IV: Camping in Iceland

Here's how it works: pull into the campground and idle the vehicle slowly around the grassy field. Scan the grounds for anything that could stand in as a windbreak (bushes, fence, berm, larger vehicle). Note the location of the bathrooms–you'll want to park closer if it looks like rain– then find a space big enough to accommodate your vehicle as well as your travel buddy's, since you lost them a bit ago to a grocery store, museum, or unscheduled sightseeing mission but you know they'll be turning up sooner or later. Make a choice, back in, then put the car in neutral, letting it roll until it finds the flattest, most level position possible. Get out of the car and stretch. Now you're camping in Iceland!

A berm and some foliage goes a long way to protect us from the wind that seemed to be ever-present in Iceland.
Drangsnes Campground

If you're going camping to get away from it all, slip away and have some alone time to spend in the wilderness, Iceland is not your place. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of spots where you'll find yourself alone with nature, spectacular viewpoints and amazing vistas, they're just not located in the campgrounds. You might get lucky and be the first one to arrive at a site and have a bit of peace and quiet for a bit. Sooner or later though, you will have company.

Wild camping is prohibited in Iceland. I think they want to discourage people from driving off road (also strictly prohibited) and destroying the thick layers of moss that cover all that lava rock. It takes years to recover from just human foot traffic, I can only imagine how long is would take the land to recover from off-road vehicle tracks. They also have a big problem with public defecation. I know, it's disgusting to think about. Imagine how disgusting it would be to look out your farmhouse window and see some tourist squatting in your field? For all these reasons (plus I'm sure they appreciate the fees collected) staying in campgrounds is required.

Not much more than a place to park, camping in Myvatn was crowded,
but close to many attractions in the geothermally active area.
It had a great view of the lake though.
The sun sets over Lake Myvatn. Ok, this place isn't half bad.

The campgrounds in Iceland are generally big open fields. You can chose your spot with care, leaving a bit of room between you and the closest neighbor, but eventually you'll have another vehicle slide in beside you. The coziness extends to other areas as well. Most of the campgrounds we stayed in had shared facilities; you might find yourself brushing your teeth next to a big burly guy standing next to a cute twenty-something woman. The feet in the next stall might be petite pink tennis shoes or giant hiking boots. Showers were often the same setup. Nothing says togetherness like stepping out of the shower next to a hairy dude that's been backpacking his way around Iceland for the last three months.

This campground was located on a farm. Being in a remote spot, we expected to have to pay cash. Our host came out with a hand held card reader and took care of our payment with little fuss, although she had to walk up a hill and hold the reader in the air to catch the wifi from the farmhouse.
The barn, and another great sunset

One of the most notable facilities was in the Northern Iceland town of Drangsnes. There was a large building that I think was used as a hostel (it appeared to be closed for the season). In the room to the side of this building there were two bathroom stalls, a washer/dryer with a laundry sink and counter, two shower stalls with two shower heads each, and a picnic table in the middle. One rainy evening there were at least ten people in there: a couple doing their laundry, someone in the toilet stall doing what one does in a toilet stall, and a group of campers making dinner at the picnic table. All this in a healthy cloud of steam rolling out from one of the shower stalls, the ambience being enhanced by the freshly showered young lady dressing in the corner. It took some getting used to, coming from the strictly segregated facilities of our apparently prudish U.S. National Parks.

In truth, after a few nights we did get used to the arrangement and came to appreciate the fact that the campgrounds were so numerous. There is so much to see in Iceland, and such a large amount of ground to cover, it was nice to know the nearest campground was never too far away.

This was the least crowded, most remotely located campground we visited.
The bridge led across a warm river to a hot spring, fed by a hot waterfall.
I'll let you find it if you decide to go. It was spectacular.
Sometimes you stop when it's convenient.
This campground in Hofn was huge and sort of industrial. It had tiered parking areas built on a slight rise in town.
Here's Mark surveying our 15 foot slice of heaven.

The Skaftafell National Park campground had great views, and was very crowded. It was also the only one that had some  laid out sites you could choose from. It was an interesting social experiment; we noticed mostly Americans chose the separated sites, the Europeans opting to park side by side in the parking lot style area. Go with what you know I guess.
High in the mountains nestled between two active volcanoes, Landmannalaugar was our coldest, dampest night spent in Iceland. We got rain then snow, and the campground was just a gravel parking lot, but in the morning we woke up to an amazing view.
The view from our rear window in the morning.
Our campground host one night.
This one was closed for the season, but we stayed there anyway and were treated to a Northern Lights show that night.
Watching the whales swim by from the berm above our campsite.
Drangsnes Campground
(Photo credit: LeeWhay Pasek, OverlandWithUs)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Iceland Part III: Siggi and the Lighthouse

We lasted 33 hours before we fell into bed in our van, exhausted but happy to be camping in Iceland at last. Our friends Ryan and LeeWhay, who had shipped their Sprinter van over a few weeks previous, were at the campground to greet us, and Rasa, Craig and their friend Michelle had shown up a bit later in the truck/camper they had rented for the trip. It seemed hard to believe that we were meeting up with them in such a faraway place. But first, we're really tired guys...

The next day we popped awake early, ready to start this adventure.

We met Siggi at the door of the Gar∂skagi lighthouse. He seemed a bit grumpy when we said hello after passing him on the walkway. At first, we didn't know he worked there, we thought he was just hanging around enjoying the view like we were. When he told us we could come in and have a cup of coffee, we politely declined after looking over the small menu posted at the door. Four bucks for a cup of coffee seemed steep, and we were enjoying the weather and exploring the old boats and historical plaques scattered around the park there. He made a comment about how Americans always just wanted to take selfies and drive off to the next waterfall, then drifted inside.

Huh. Ok.
An old fishing boat was moored in the parking lot of Gar∂skaga Park.
Behind it, the "new" lighthouse, built in 1944.
A view from the top deck of the "Holmsteinn Gar∂i"

Our friends had an appointment in town and had to leave us, so we made lunch in the van and looked at the map. Today was supposed to be a relaxed, get-used-to-Iceland day and it happened to be a bright sunny one at that. It was nice not to have a set itinerary.

"You know, why did we come here?" I asked Mark. "To see stuff and find out what Iceland is like, right?"

We tossed around that thought for a bit, and decided the perfect introduction to Iceland and its people was grousing about Americans in the lighthouse just a few yards away.

"Let's do it."
Gar∂skagaviti Lighthouse

We walked in the door and found the guy fussing with the tables and chairs. I don't think he recognized us from our initial meeting outside. We told him we'd like a coffee and hot chocolate, and with that he visibly brightened. "Oh! Good! Sit down, I'll get it ready for you."

With the price of a cup of coffee, you get a tour of one of Iceland's oldest lighthouses. Our host introduced himself as Siggi, and he lived in the nearby town of Sandger∂i. He told us the lighthouse had been built by women in 1897 to guide their fisherman husbands home from sea. It was, he said with a flourish, The Lighthouse of Love.

The view from inside the cupola.
With that, he sent us up the set of rickety ladders (God I love a country that trusts you to not hurt yourself!) leading to the roof and cupola where the light used to reside (a newer, taller lighthouse was constructed a short way inland, making this one obsolete in 1944). It was a great view, and I can imagine a fantastic place to view whales and dolphins that sometimes swim by. We took some photos and squinted in the sun and wind, then came back down for the rest of story.

Mark stands ghost-like inside the tower of the lighthouse.
The view back toward the new lighthouse.

From here, I will paraphrase Siggi:

Icelandic people are different from others. They treat their women with respect, no different from the men. There is little divorce, and women are strong and smart. Icelandic men don't feel they need to prove anything, and are happy to share everything with their wives (at this point I punched Mark in the arm). Siggi pointed out that he was a highly respected football (soccer) coach, and he had trained many winning teams for Iceland. He could have any woman he wanted, but he was happy with his wife. "Why would I want more?" (Mark received another punch).

This lighthouse was built by women because they decided too many fisherman were dying at sea. They designed it so it would have thick walls to withstand the winds, and a bright light that would guide them home. Each stone was placed with care, knowing each one would contribute to a family that would not lose a loved one.

He regaled us with stories about the Vikings (Wikings!) and how they claimed to have discovered Iceland. How did they discover a place where we were already living? They did not discover Iceland! He told us about Leif Eriksson who sailed to Iceland with his mother from Norway and became a great explorer in part by spending time here. He sailed to Greenland and hunted walrus so he could sell their skins and make money to build a ship. He told us how Icelanders like Italians, but they were full of bologna when they claimed Columbus discovered America. How could he discover a place that Leif had already discovered four hundred years before? (At this point I couldn't help myself, I told him there were some Native Americans that might have a problem with that. Siggi just shrugged and kept talking)

He told us about tourism that has become a boon for Iceland, but also a source of amusement to the locals. The Reykjanes peninsula, on which the lighthouse was built, is at the confluence of the polar waters from the north near Greenland and the warm Atlantic Gulf stream, the cold and warm currents meet right at the point. This not only causes treacherous seas, but contributes to a warmer climate with more clear days–the best place in Iceland to view the Northern Lights. He said the Japanese believe a child conceived under the Aurora Borealis will be blessed with good luck, and that before there were enough hotels built here the locals told their children not to wander around here after dark, there were so many Japanese couples trying to make luck. Now they have built a special hotel with skylights in the rooms over the beds. They call them Production Rooms. Siggi winked and smiled.

At the end of the story, Siggi got up and disappeared into the kitchen, talking as he went. "Now, there is a saying that the women in Iceland have. No matter how hard it gets, you must always remember to be thankful. You could lose your husband to the sea, but you still have your children to remember him by. You might have only fish to eat, but at least you have something to eat. Life might seem hard, but there will always be someone that needs more help than you." He walked back to us and held open both hands. In each palm, he had a small lava rock, smooth and black. "Carry this with you and let it be a reminder of everything you are thankful for. Keep it in your pocket, and once a day pull it out, remind yourself that there is much in life to be thankful for."

We took the rocks from him and rolled them around between our fingers. There was something comforting about the way they felt, this tiny bit of Iceland small enough to carry with us. We slipped them into our pockets and thanked Siggi for a wonderful time. An hour had passed, the coffee and hot chocolate was gone and it was time to say goodbye.

Back in the van, we took the stones from our pockets and looked at them again. We didn't know how much a (slightly) grumpy guy telling (slightly) tall tales in an old lighthouse could brighten our day, but we knew we were thankful he did.

Siggi and Mark inside the cafe at The Lighthouse of Love
(Next up: Camping in Iceland)